Images of Us puts girls in the game
Even if they're on the sidelines, Bernell Hooker wants girls to be in the game.
That simple concept is the driving force behind Images of Us Sports, the small, non-profit organization Hooker founded to encourage girls to use athletics to improve themselves physically and mentally for a lifetime.
Hooker, 55, played basketball and ran track at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, then coached at the Milwaukee School of Engineering and Milwaukee Area Technical College. Sports has been the path for her success, and she's committed to helping guide younger women on a similar route.
She invested her savings to launch Images of Us in 2002 and retired early from her job at a federal halfway house in February to ramp up its programs for girls from six to 17.
"I'm excited because instead of 99 percent, I can put in 202 percent," Hooker said of the career move. "That means a lot to me. It freed me up to bring these sports to where they should be in the community."
As a coach and observer, Hooker long lamented the lack of opportunities for girls to participate outside of high school athletics. Few community groups offer programs directed to encourage girls, she said.
"You see girls sitting around on the side of the floor, while the boys are playing," Hooker said. "We're not offering girls what they need to get in shape. We want to bring physical activities back in their lives."
IOU offers a 10-week basketball skills camp, Game Recognize Game, that runs on Saturdays from June 14 to Aug. 23, at 1531 W. Vliet St. Beyond the practices and games, the camp provides classes on how to prepare for college and build the skills to succeed off the court. The camp accepts girls ages 13 to 17, and registration opens Saturday, May 17.
Meanwhile, the Let Girls Play Sports Camp is geared for girls ages 6 to 13 and includes basketball, soccer, horseback riding and volleyball. Those sessions are also held on Saturdays, from July 12 to Aug. 9, in partnership with the Neighborhood House, at 2819 W. Richardson Pl.
Starting in August, IOU Sports will offer Back to School Back to Basics Camps at Milwaukee Public Schools. The one-day sessions will give girls a taste of different sports and show them the variety of careers available to them.
"We teach them leadership, confidence and self-esteem," Hooker said. "We want them to understand that sports is a business. We're hoping to have more coaches, athletic directors, trainers and statisticians. Their whole sense of 'I can do whatever' should be limitless."
That expansive approach is what impressed Whitefish Bay mom Melissa Ugland, whose daughter, Ella, participated in several of the IOU sports camps.
"It's a lot more than an organization designed to give girls sports skills," Ugland said. "During the camp, there was a component that focused on good and bad decision-making, and how to take care of your body.
"In my experience, it's common for camps targeting boys and young men to do this, but few, if any, local camps do it for girls, or if they do, they are held at a college and cost hundreds of dollars."
The IOU Sports programs typically cost $40, and the payments can be spread over weeks in $5 increments.
As someone who has been on the sidelines for decades, Hooker's work has been somewhat under-recognized. Her charity operates on a small budget, roughly $50,000.
However, Sue Black, the owner of the Milwaukee Wave and a partner in the new MKE Sports & Entertainment, noticed IOU Sports and put them in the spotlight at a Wave game earlier this year. IOU Sports volunteers handed out programs and worked at the game, and the team's charity arm, Wave of Hope, donated to the organization.
"Images of Us wraps it all up," Black said. "There is that mentoring, someone to look up to, that role model. I think with kids, they need something put in their heads to start believing 'I'm going to go to college.' If they see people that can set that stage for them, the benefits will be exponential."
For more information or to register for an IOU Sports program, go to iousports.org/home.
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